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News Keeps

  • March 7, 2022
  • 6 min read
News Keeps

by Sophie Pretorius

‘News is news however old it is…news never smells, however long it’s dead. News keeps. And it comes round again when you least expect. Like thunder.says Javitt, part Merlin part Rumpelstiltskin, to his young charge Wilditch, in Graham Greene’s 1991 short story ‘Under the Garden’.

This occurs as a response to Wilditch’s protests at having to read the old, underground-dwelling man a newspaper from the previous century when he wants to ‘hear the news’. The story was first published six months before Francis Bacon’s death.

News of the coming of the Royal Academy’s Francis Bacon: Man and Beast exhibition, which finally opened on 29 January 2022 and runs until 17 April, has come round again many times. I, at least, have been reading articles about it for almost three years. Jackie Wullschläger, writing for The Financial Times, titled her January 2021 review of the show, ‘Francis Bacon: Man and Beast is an exhibition for now’. This was when the show was due to open in January 2021 and the publicity for this opening had been tentatively building for a whole, locked-down 2020. Rachel Spence, exactly a year after Wullschläger, in January 2022, also for The Financial Times, led with, ‘Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy — a painter for our times’. The paintings prove them both right. Bacon’s report on the human condition, or, worse, a human condition, has come round again. However long their creator has been dead, and however many times the exhibition could have been rescheduled, they are still fresh.

The show, co-curated by Sarah Lea, who took over from Anna Testar, and Michael Peppiatt, assisted by Rhiannon Hope, is a relief. It is a relief because it went ahead, because it has been many years since Bacon has been represented in full force in his city, and a relief because it is moody and dramatic and magnanimously indulges the high drama that Bacon, at his best, is master of. The Royal Academy’s main space has been given a rich, deep, polychromatic paint job, super-saturated and with a generous injection of black in the mix. The lighting is low, and the paintings spot lit in the dark. It brings to mind Martin Harrison’s 2016 curation of the Francis Bacon, Monaco and French Culture show at the Grimaldi Forum, which used dark walls and atmospheric lighting to great effect, and to mixed critical response. The papers in 2022 have, on the whole, applauded the Royal Academy’s dark walls. My singular complaint is the curators’ concession to three lighter rooms, one at the beginning, one in the middle and one at the end. Perhaps the intention here was mercy, but it spoils the fun somewhat. 

The show has an excellent rhythm to it, broadly chronological, it begins with Head I, 1948 all alone in a room, with its animal fangs rising from the trachea of a melting human head, ear hooked and pulled out by a piece of string. This leads on to a mid-sized room in which all but two of Bacon’s works which include florals have been placed. This is a show about fauna – man and beast – but in this room what dominates is the flora. Roses in Study for a Figure, c. 1945 and ‘Fury’, c. 1944, hydrangeas or periwinkles in Figure Study I, 1945–46 and palm leaves in Figure Study II, 1945–46 burst out the of paintings like fireworks. The latter three are hung like a triptych, in conscious imitation of the painting one cannot seem to avoid mentioning when writing about Bacon, the Tate’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944. 

This room opens on to the largest room in the exhibition, or what feels like the largest room, and my favourite, with muted olive-green walls. I have seen this exhibition many times and I have yet to look at each canvas in this room for the time it deserves. Something one can forget about Bacon when looking at his work in reproduction is the variety in the thickness of paint he used. In Study for Portrait of P. L. No. 1, 1957, reproduced here, a simple white line swoops beneath the crumpled Peter Lacy, Bacon’s then lover, foetally curled and sobbing into his pillow. In reproduction the line is so crisp, it looks almost David Hockney digital. But in the flesh, this line is painted in caked impasto over the gossamer-thin, very-burnt cornflower blue of the background. It is more a wall or a moat than a line. It dominates the canvas, keeping you from Lacy, or perhaps protecting him from you, and orders that you link it visually with the scratchy pillow that Lacy buries his face in. 

The next room is titled ‘The animal within’. It holds the first of the works which reside more on the human end of the man-beast spectrum. Its walls are off-white, but close enough to it to leave these works stranded and grasping, as if on the beach at low tide. Study for a Portrait, 1953 is housed in its own cage, on, one assumes, the Kunsthalle, Hamburg’s stipulation. The caged figure, screaming and suffocating is first trapped by Bacon’s painted crate, then trapped again under glass, and then trapped once more in a temperature-controlled Perspex box which sticks out two-feet from the wall. This poor poor man. 

Rooms four and five, painted two shades of ox-blood burgundy, plunge you back into the dark, and serve as a nave; the paintings parishioners, looking on as you walk toward what most of the critics have singled out as the main attraction of the exhibition. Portrait of George Dyer Crouching, 1966, in the would-be apse. This painting has not been shown publicly in Britain since 1967. The wall colour of room 5 draws attention to the liver-y sphincter of a couch in the painting, in the centre of which crouches a naked George Dyer, Bacon’s second great lover and muse. He clings to a diving board like a neanderthal Olympian, and his head stutters in its movements, turning to observe the viewer. The result is terrifying, as if you disturbed him about to commit some gravely inhuman act, and he is disappointed, both to find you watching and in himself. 

Subsequently one is confronted by an octagonal theatre in a different, but still bloody, red. This sixth room unites Bacon’s three 1969 bull fight pictures, making the bulls the spectators, and you the animal in the ring. The last two rooms are studded with triptychs which are all tight and polished in the way of late Bacon. What one is struck by in the penultimate and final rooms is the brilliant cleanliness and confidence of the five massive triptychs. The show ends with everyone’s new favourite Bacon, since its discovery in 2016 by Martin Harrison, Study of a Bull, 1991. It is empty and masterful. I encourage you, though, to walk back through to the beginning of the exhibition before you leave, and watch the paintings get dirtier in reverse. The report from Bacon in 1933 as well as that in 1991 has kept well, and, like thunder, will continue pointing to something as long as that something exists. 

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Sophie Pretorius

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